NCAA Tournament: Northwestern’s magical season creates hope for bright future

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By Netta-Lee Lax

“Hail to purple! Hail to white! Hail to thee Northwestern.” – The Northwestern Alma Mater

Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald waited by the tunnel for his basketball counterpart, Chris Collins, to leave the court after a dramatic loss to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But as he extended his arm to let me pass by, he smiled at me.

In that moment, it felt like he was waiting for me. In that moment I could not hide my allegiance. In that moment as the Northwestern band played the alma mater, I was a Wildcat through and through and so was Fitz, as he’s known by the NU faithful. In that moment, it took a lot of will power not to just hug Fitz and let all of the pent up emotions of the past week out.

The very first story I covered as a student was an attempt by Northwestern’s athletic department to legitimize its men’s basketball program. In 2010, Northwestern hosted its inaugural, and only, Friday Night Hoops open practice at the student gymnasium known as SPAC. That night they held a make-shift dunk contest won by senior Mike Capocci, who barely made the rotation that season. The staff had not let future pros Drew Crawford or John Shurna partake, worried they might injure its best players. A few hours later, Snoop Dogg played a concert with the whole men’s basketball team on stage at the now “old” Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern was trying to mimic programs like Duke, which fills Cameron Indoor when it holds open practices.

Instead, Northwestern emerged looking more like the knock-off barbie dolls at the dollar store with uneven eyes and immobile arms. It was not until last Sunday when Northwestern’s name was physically displayed on the bracket during the selection show that it sunk in that Northwestern now really has a legitimate men’s basketball program.

Over the past seven years as I’ve covered and followed Northwestern basketball, emotion has never been lacking.

When Michael “Juice” Thompson set a scoring record in the 2011 Big Ten Tournament, I could not comprehend a better feeling surrounding the team. The next season when the team collapsed in the same tournament and I entered their somber locker room, I thought the look on former walk-on Reggie Hearn’s face was the lowest I would ever see the team sink. Then this season happened. I was hesitant to buy in, worried that my masochistic basketball tendencies would drive me crazy.

But this was not the Northwestern I had come to know. This was not the Northwestern I had come to love and despise all at once. As Chris Collins noted in a press conference earlier this week, Northwestern fans were not sure how to handle this team.

“Is this the Northwestern we are used to seeing?” senior  Sanjay Lumpkin said, summing it up best. “This has been a magical season.”

It did not sink in that this was real. It did not sink for me until this morning when ESPN’s Mike Greenberg addressed a group of Northwestern alumni at a pep-rally.  As he pointed out that Northwestern was just one of six schools to win a bowl game and make it to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. It finally hit me. Northwestern is a legitimate Big Ten athletic school.

This week has been filled with a mix of deep grounding breaths, like the look senior Nate Taphorn had on his face when Northwestern went down 28-12 with just under four minutes left in the first half. It maybe began to sink in that this was his last game as a Wildcat when he crouched down along the sideline cheering on his team as they clawed their way back into the game against Gonzaga late in the second half.

This week has been filled with bizarre moments and strange calls. From the intentional foul by Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis when his team was up by one late in the game to the missed goal-tending call that led to a technical on Collins, there was rarely a dull moment.

At times during Saturday’s game against Gonzaga, there was a dreaded sense of familiarity as Northwestern played isolation offense and chucked up contested runners in the lane. But for the most part there was a newness that left most Northwestern fans, clad from head to toe in purple garb, looking at each other and saying, “Wow. This is awesome.”

Chris Collins’ motto is “Pound the Rock.” It comes from the writing of journalist Jacob Riis, who exposed the hardships of tenement life. The passage reads:

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

After Northwestern’s season-ending loss, redshirt sophomore Vic Law declared, “This is just the building block…this is just the beginning.”

The rock has just begun to show cracks, but it has not yet split. Next year the majority of Northwestern’s players will return to Evanston. The Wildcats will play away from campus as their home arena is renovated. Next year, as Collins explained, Northwestern will be “a different team.” But for Northwestern fans, for the students, for the alumni, for the staff and certainly for the players, this season will always stand alone. This team will forever be the first.

“We made history in a way that has never been done at this university, “ explained Law. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this for the rest of my life.”

Lumpkin told me after the win against Vanderbilt, “This is why we came here.” Lumpkin was referring to himself and his teammates, both past and present, and their drive to make it to the big dance, but in a way it was also true for the Northwestern fans.

Moments like this are why we are sports fans. Moments like this are why we put ourselves through the pain of watching a team we’ve invested so much energy and emotion in fall apart. Moments like this are what we come for.

So tomorrow I will watch the video of Fitzgerald running into the locker room of a victorious Northwestern men’s basketball team again, and I will think of the elation and the pride. I will think of my alma mater and what it stands for. I will remember why I continue to call myself a Wildcat.

Alma mater, praise be thine, may thy name forever shine.” – Northwestern Alma Mater

Villanova betting favorite against Michigan in NCAA Tournament title game

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The Villanova Wildcats and Jalen Brunson have won every one of their NCAA Tournament games this year by at least 10 points, including a matchup against a team whose defense was just as stingy as that of their Monday night opponent, the Michigan Wolverines.

The Wildcats are 6.5-point betting favorites at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com against the Wolverines with a 145-point total for the NCAA Tournament championship game in San Antonio. It’s the largest line for the title game since 2010, when Duke laid seven points against Butler but only won by two.

The favored Wildcats are 8-1 straight-up in their last nine matchups against the Big Ten, the conference in which Michigan plays, while Villanova is also 10-1 against the spread in its last 11 games against Big Ten opponents.

The Wolverines are no slouches, having gone 14-0 SU and 11-3 ATS in their last 14 games, but they are the first team to reach the national final without playing any team seeded No. 5 or higher. Villanova is 9-0 SU and 8-1 ATS since March 1.

The main question with Michigan, which is 33-7 SU and 25-13-1 ATS, is whether a team from the Big Ten, whose best teams all play at a deliberate pace, can match up with Villanova, which plays at much faster tempo and leads the nation in scoring. Michigan, which is 4-27 SU in its last 31 games as an underdog of 6.5 or more, has one of the top defenses in the nation.

Villanova had a poor shooting day against Texas Tech, another strong defensive team, at the Elite Eight stage, but still won 71-59 to get the cover in that game.

The Wolverines, who are 7-0 ATS in their last seven games as the underdog according to the OddsShark College Basketball Database, aren’t super-efficient offensively but big man Moritz Wagner should be a tough check for the Wildcats.

Villanova, 35-4 SU and 26-12-1 ATS, might face some challenges with getting their trademark plethora of clean looks from the three-point line. Michigan has kept 12 of its last 14 opponents below their average number of attempted threes.

However, the Wildcats, who are 5-0 ATS in their last five games as a favorite, boast shooters who are big men – 6-foot-9 Omari Spellman, 6-9 Eric Paschall and 6-7 Mikal Bridges – that can find space to fire away, plus Brunson thrives at pulling defenders out of position.

While preparing for a John Beilein-coached Michigan team in fewer than 48 hours isn’t easy, Villanova is 3-1 SU in its last four games with one day off between games. The total has gone under in Michigan’s last six games with one day off between games. The total has gone over in 14 of Villanova’s last 18 games with a closing total of 145.0 or more.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Jayhawks, Ramblers take strong underdog betting trends into Final Four

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Whether it’s Devonte’ Graham or Malik Newman taking the lead offensively, the Kansas Jayhawks have been a solid cover when they get points from oddsmakers.

Both Final Four betting matchups have the same line, with the Villanova Wildcats set as five-point favorites against Kansas with a 154.5-point total, according to sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com, in their national semifinal that takes place at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Saturday.

Kansas is 8-2 both straight-up and against the spread in its last 10 games as the underdog, according to the OddsShark College Basketball Database. However, Villanova is also 8-2 SU and 8-2 ATS in its last 10 games as a favorite of 5.0 or fewer points.

Kansas, 31-7 SU and 20-17 ATS on the season, has been stress-tested by a tough Big 12 conference and a march through the Midwest Region that included wresting an overtime win against Duke in the Elite Eight. Taking the Jayhawks entails expecting their hot shooting and the interior work of center Udoka Azubuike to override a mark of 4-10 ATS in its last 14 games against the Big East.

Villanova, 34-4 SU and 25-12-1 ATS and the favorite on the odds to win the NCAA Tournament, led the nation in scoring and point guard Jalen Brunson commands an offense that is lethal from almost all points within and beyond the three-point line. The main concern might be whether shooting guard Mikal Bridges bounces back from failing to hit a three-pointer in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight win against Texas Tech, but Texas Tech grades out much higher defensively than Kansas.

The teams’ last three matchups have gone under. However, the total has gone over in Kansas’ last three games with an average combined score of 161.33. The total has also gone over in 14 of Villanova’s last 19 games, with an average of 157.11.

In the early semifinal, the Michigan Wolverines are five-point favorites on the Final Four odds against the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers with a 129.5-point total. As the line suggests, it’s expected to be a grind. Between Loyola-Chicago being on an 8-0 ATS streak in its last eight games as the underdog and Michigan being 10-0 SU and 7-3 ATS in its last 10 games as a favorite, something will have to give.

Loyola-Chicago, 32-5 SU and 25-10 ATS, is just the fourth No. 11 seed to make the Final Four. The previous three teams each lost in the semifinal. The decision to take Loyola should be pegged to whether one believes it can keep up its high shooting percentages – 52.5 percent overall, 41.7 percent on threes – against Michigan’s defense, which is allowing only 64 points per game in the tournament. The Ramblers and point guard Clayton Custer space the floor very well, though, and that will give Michigan some tough looks.

Michigan is 32-7 and 24-13-1 ATS against a schedule that is rated as much more challenging than the Ramblers’ docket. The Wolverines, who are 7-0 SU and 5-2 ATS in their last seven matchups as a favorite of 5.0 or less, will try to use their edge in size – here one thinks of center Moritz Wagner, forward Duncan Robinson and guard Charles Matthews – to get Loyola-Chicago into matchup problems and wear the Ramblers down.

Michigan is the only team in San Antonio not among the top six in the country in effective field goal percentage – it’s 47th, in fact – but they have a greater margin of error than Loyola-Chicago.

The total has gone under in eight of Loyola-Chicago’s last nine games, with an average of 124.67. Michigan can get out in transition when it needs to and the total has gone over in five of their last seven games on a Saturday.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.